Sunday, March 18, 2007

Golden Heart Time, Part Two

See previous post here. I'd meant to post them within minutes of each other, but got distracted with my daughter's desire for me to play baseball and help her color dinosaurs.

So, on to judging. With both the RITA and the GH, you're judged by a jury of your peers. You have to be published with an RWA-recognized publisher to judge the former, and you just have to be an RWA member to judge the latter, though I think members who have PRO status (unpublished, but have completed and submitted at least one manuscript) get priority. Maybe. I'm not really sure about that part.

What distinguishes the GH from local RWA chapters' contests is that there is no feedback. Instead of getting your manuscript back with a detailed scoresheet and comments and suggestions, you just get your numerical scores in a range from 1-9, along with whether you were in the first quartile, second quartile, or bottom 50% of all entrants in your category. The reason I've heard for the lack of feedback is fear of lawsuits--RWA doesn't want to get sued because one of its members doesn't know how to give tactful feedback. But it also makes sense given the larger scale of the GH. Those local contests average 20-30 entries per category AFAICT, while the GH allows 1200 entries across the 12 categories. It would be a lot of work for the small staff at the national office, and feedback isn't really the purpose of the GH. It's a potential career boost for writers on the verge of publication. I'd never advise entering the GH as your first contest--better to try a few local ones first, see how other writers react to your work, and if you're finaling or coming close to it, THEN shell out the bucks for the GH.

All that said, it still bothers me a bit that the most important contest in RWA's world has the least quality control. I judge a lot of local contests, but if I was a vindictive or incompetent judge, I wouldn't get to keep doing so for long. My mean spirit or ignorance would show in my comments, and contest coordinators wouldn't keep inviting me back. But with the GH, there's no way to know. I've heard stories that make me wonder, like a friend who got a 2.0 from one judge the same year her other entry finaled. To me, a 2.0 is the kind of score you'd give an entry that showed an utter lack of competence at grammar and craft. And I know that's not the case with this writer. For starters, I've read her work. Also, she's published now. Her first book comes out in May, and IIRC it's the one that got that ridiculously low score.

I've heard plenty of similar stories, so I think there are GH judges out there who have no business judging. (Incidentally, I'm not speaking from personal experience here. I'm obviously not thrilled* with how The Sergeant's Lady scored last year, given that it didn't, you know, final, but none of the scores were out of line with what a competent, qualified judge who just happened to have different criteria for what makes an ideal romance than I do might assign.**) And I'm not sure what the solution is. The best I can come up with is something I suggested to the board when they asked for feedback on the contests: I said that each judge should write a few sentences per entry justifying her scoring, not for the entrants, but for the national office to review. That way they could weed out obvious incompetence, and maybe judges would feel a certain constraint not to be petty or arbitrary. Or maybe there should be mandatory training, or only people who've judged X number of local contests should be eligible to judge the GH. But I'm not sure any of those ideas would work. Maybe there isn't a solution.

* "Not thrilled" is perhaps an understatement of my reaction when I first received my scores, which IIRC ranged from 5.0 to 7.8 and were mostly in the 6's, putting me in the bottom 50% of my category. After a couple of finals and several near-misses in local contests, that bottom 50% finish was quite a blow. But nearly a year later, I've gained some perspective. I'll never know what those scores really meant, but they don't undo or negate every bit of good feedback I've ever gotten on the manuscript.

** There's really nothing anyone can do about the fact there's an element of subjectivity in judging. For example, I try my best to be a fair judge, but I can't completely check my tastes and personality at the door. I'm probably tougher on historical accuracy issues than average, and more lenient on whether the characters' goal-motivation-conflict is handled just the way it's taught in RWA workshops. There's nothing I love more than a good Regency, but I'm also more sensitive to cliches or factual errors in the subgenre just because I know the era so well and have read so many books set in it. I try to be aware of my biases and not let them impact my judging too much, but I don't think I can get rid of them altogether. And I'm sure every other judge is the same way.


Keira Soleore said...

Thanks, Susan, for making me aware of the wrangling in the blogosphere over whether the Ritas (and GHs) are important or not and what they represent.

All awards are subjective because people judge them. Now, how subjective they are is splitting hairs. At the end, does it matter? What the awards do is call attention to the book industry and its unsung heroes.

With the advent of the Internet these days, you have readers commenting on boards and blogs, so writers these days get their pats on the back. In the past, those rare booksignings, even rarer good reviews, and the awards were the only feedback mechanisms.

The publishing industry ignores the romance writers. So why not the Rita?!

All the best to you for the GH. I'll be waiting on the 26th for your post here. And if you final, I'll be cheering for you at the ceremony in July. :)

December Quinn said...

Hi Susan,

I'm not sure if you'll see this comment but I've linked to these posts (actually, just to the first one, because it links to this one.) I hope that's okay.